WASHINGTON — A small group of lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, negotiated a compromise Thursday night to end the furloughs of air traffic controllers that caused delays this week at airports nationwide.
With members of Congress planning to be home in their districts next week, senators rushed to strike a deal that would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to shuffle funds internally and resume normal staffing levels at air traffic control towers.
That deal was reached after 8 p.m. – long after most senators had left for the weekend – and passed in the Senate without dissent. Collins presented the compromise on the Senate floor.
“It’s nice to know that when we work together, we really can solve problems,” she said.
At least three separate proposals were considered in the Senate on Thursday, all meant to give the FAA more flexibility to address the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester.
To absorb its share of the $85 billion in cuts, the FAA began requiring nearly 15,000 air traffic controllers to take a day off without pay about every two weeks. The reduced staffing, starting this week, was blamed for thousands of flight delays.
Collins, a Republican, and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado presented a plan earlier Thursday to allow the FAA to reallocate as much as $253 million from discretionary funds in its Airport Improvement Program. That money would be used to reinstate the air traffic control shifts and avoid the closure of nearly 150 control towers at smaller airports nationwide, beginning in mid-June.
The deal adopted by the Senate and sent to the House late Thursday mirrors the Collins-Udall plan, although it apparently leaves unresolved the fate of the control towers at the smaller airports.
“It averts the need for furloughs that caused such serious delays and ultimately would have created real problems for the state of Maine’s hospitality industry,” Collins said in an interview after the vote. “If someone is thinking of coming to the state of Maine for the weekend and they have to spend three hours sitting on the tarmac, they are not likely to make the trip. So the ripple effect would have cost us jobs.”
Collins said Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood had called her proposal “an effective, workable solution” during an early morning meeting.
The House will likely consider the bill Friday. Collins said the Senate negotiating team worked with House members on the issue, so she is optimistic about its passage.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia who was a key negotiator on the issue, said Thursday evening that the possible closing of 149 air traffic control towers was a sticking point. But he appeared confident that a bigger deal to address the furloughs would come together.
“This will get worked out because it has to, and because it’s not that difficult,” he told reporters.
No airports in Maine stand to lose their towers, although Bangor International Airport could lose overnight air traffic control shifts beginning this summer because of the budget cuts. Air traffic control would be handled by Logan International Airport’s tower in Boston.
The furloughs of air traffic controllers have been the highest-profile effects of the sequester cuts that took effect March 1, after Congress and the White House failed to reach agreement on a deficit reduction plan.
The FAA said the furloughs caused “staffing challenges” Wednesday in major transportation hubs such as New York, Washington, Chicago, Tampa and San Antonio. The agency attributed 863 of the roughly 3,000 flight delays nationwide Wednesday to the furloughs.
Delays at the hubs trickled down to Maine’s regional airports during the week.
The issue has triggered finger-pointing on all sides.
The FAA has said it had no choice but to furlough air traffic controllers. Members of Congress and some in the air transportation industry have suggested that the FAA chose the more painful budget path to make a point.
Organizations representing major and regional airlines sued last week to block the FAA’s furlough plan. One regional airline that’s closely watching the situation is Cape Air, the Massachusetts-based airline that is the primary carrier into Augusta, Rockland and Bar Harbor.
Michelle Haynes, spokeswoman for Cape Air, said the 1,100-employee company depends on a robust summer tourist season. So the prospect of long delays at Logan – Cape Air’s hub for flights throughout New England – was disconcerting, Haynes said.
“We are very optimistic and hopeful that the powers that be in government and at the FAA will be able to clear this up by Memorial Day, because Memorial Day is the day of reckoning,” she said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: